Interview with Mahendra Chaudhry, NFU general secretary on Girmit
Labour Party website, March 2004)
1. What is Girmit Divas all about?
Girmit Divas is to be celebrated on 14 and 15 May
2004 to commemorate the arrival in Fiji in 1879 (125 years ago) of
the first Indians - known as Girmitiyas. Over the next 37 years,
some 60,000 of them came to slave in European-owned plantations
here. They all came as indentured labourers, contracted to work for
a fixed term under conditions highly degrading and dehumanising.
Although slavery, to all intents and purposes, had been abolished in
1833, the British introduced a new form of slave labour to pursue
their mercantile interests in the colonies.
The celebration is intended to pay homage to those
brave Girmitiya souls who endured unbelievable indignity as human
beings to contribute to Fiji's economic well-being. Fiji today is
what it is largely through the blood, sweat and tears of those brave
men and women who must be regarded as the pioneers of our
development as a nation.
2. How or who initiated this idea?
The idea was initiated by the National Farmers
Union. It must be remembered that the primary reason for Indians
being brought here had to do with farming.
3. What plans does NFU have to celebrate this
Celebrations are planned in all the major centres
of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. National and district committees have
been set up to plan activities which will include a glimpse into the
past, re-enacting some of the degrading and humiliating experiences
of the Girmityas. There will be programs which will feature the
music, the songs and dances of those days to show how they
entertained themselves under conditions of slavery.
A publication to chronicle the struggle of the
Girmityas and their descendants for their human, political and civil
rights will also be launched.
4. Is this celebration a sole effort of NFU or
other parties are also involved? If yes who are they?
The celebration is the sole effort of the NFU but
we will attempt to involve all those who have interacted with the
Girmitiyas and their descendants.
5. As the leader of cane farmers in Fiji, how
do you think the farmers have fared over the 125 years?
Theirs has been a tale of joys interlaced with
sorrows. Many of them have made remarkable progress through their
indomitable will to succeed. They worked hard, invested heavily in
the education of their children, turning them into successful
businessmen or professionals.
However, many more have remained poor and under
privileged through sheer force of circumstances. They continue to
struggle for a living as rural workers dependent on seasonal
employment which is shrinking.
It must be remembered that an overwhelming number
of cane farmers are landless, having to depend on State or native
leases for their livelihood.
6. In what ways are the cane farmers of today
similar or different from those in Girmit era?
Cane farmers of today are the victims of
insecurity of land tenure and racial prejudice. In the Girmit era
they were treated by the European planters and, subsequently by the
CSR Co of Australia, as economic animals.
But today, for many of them, their future is just
as insecure. Some 4300 farming families have been uprooted from
their livelihood upon expiry of their leases. They received
virtually no resettlement or rehabilitation assistance from the
State. Many of them have been reduced to destitution. Their homes
were pulled down as they were driven away from their once
flourishing farms. They now squat on state land or have sought
refuge with their family members or friends.
7. Can you talk about some of the hardships
farmers serving under Girmit went through?
Yes. There are many heart-rending stories but let
me give a brief picture of the degrading and dehumanising conditions
that prevailed under indenture.
"At the lines, the harsh brutality of life as
indentured labourers began to dawn on the recruits. The lines
themselves were barracks of 16 rooms, eight on each side with each
room measuring 10 feet by 7 feet - later, after 1908, changed to 10
ft by 12 ft.
Three single men or a married couple with two
children were housed in a room which were windowless with just a
door and often no floor. Rooms were separated by partitions which
did not reach the ceiling - the openings were fitted with wire
netting for ventilation. And often single men were placed next to
If the lines were more hell-holes than places of
abode and retreat, the fields where the recruits worked were
breeding grounds for brutality, violence, resentment and gross
exploitation of human beings. Indentured labourers were treated like
beasts of burden - made to work excruciatingly long hours under
rigorous and brutal conditions for 1 shilling a day, five and a half
days a week.
An indentured labourer's day would, as a rule,
start at 3am, some at 2am. At this unearthly hour, he would get up
and prepare himself for the day, cook his breakfast, prepare lunch
and be ready to leave for the field, often a mile away, so that he
could be there at 5am ready to start work as the first shafts of
daylight broke through. He worked through till 5pm, and often late
into the night.
They were given task work which was both cruel and
exploitative. Labourers had their pay deducted if the work was not
finished on time; or worse still received a beating. Girmitya after
Girmitya has borne witness to how back-breaking, arduous and
rigorous the tasks were. Work had to be done rain, shine or
8. What can you say about the current status of
cane farmers in Fiji, especially with so many of them being uprooted
from "their homes"?
They face an insecure and uncertain future. Their
plight must receive international attention. The celebration will
focus on this aspect as well, to jolt the conscience of the
government here and that of the British and Australian governments
which must be held responsible for the human tragedy which is
unfolding before our eyes for a second time in 125 years.
9. Do you think cane farming in Fiji is dying?
Well, according to present indications its future
viability is seriously threatened. There are two causes for this
calamity. The industry started sliding downhill from 1998 when
farmers began being evicted from native land upon expiry of leases.
Some 4300 farming families have so far suffered
displacement, resulting in a substantial decline in the cane crop
from 4 million tonnes in 1999 to around 2.7 million tonnes last
year. The reason for this shortfall is the failure on the part of
those who took over the land to maintain production at past levels.
The second major cause is the FSC itself. It is a
very badly mismanaged corporate entity replete with corruption,
abuse, incompetence and inefficiency.
10. Many sceptic Indians would ask, "what
is there to celebrate the 125th year of Indians coming to Fiji"
It must be remembered that the Indians did not
come here by themselves. They were brought here by deceit practiced
on them by the agents of the British colonial government.
The Divas is not so much a celebration as a
commemoration to pay homage to the Girmitiyas - to praise their
courage and to express gratitude and appreciation for their
sacrifices. It is also to educate and inform the present generation
of Indians, mainly the descendants of Girmityas, of the hardships
their forefathers had to endure and the sacrifices they made to
provide a better life for their off springs.
Perhaps the greatest gift they gave us was the heavy investment they
made in providing for the education of their children. The colonial
government made no provision for the education of Indian children in
the early days since the abolition of indenture. Why would they? To
them Indians were just 'coolies', destined to live and die working
the cane farms. Of what use would education be to them?
But through education, the Girmityas saw the
emancipation of their future generations. I agree, however, that
their struggle for justice is far from over even though the British
have long since left.
11. Some will also claim that NFU has a
political motive for celebrating this. Comment
They can continue with their idle talk. We have a
purpose in mind and we intend to achieve it. Besides, as the major
representative of cane farmers in this country, it is only apt that
NFU should organise the anniversary event.
12. Do you think Indians or cane farmers still
have or see a future in Fiji? Why?
Yes. We live in a globalised world today. Indians
are citizens of Fiji and they must make their future here. It is the
responsibility of their leaders to see that they are treated with
respect and dignity and are given equal opportunity for securing
their future here. After all, no one will dispute their immense
contribution to Fiji's economic and social development.
But I must concede that Indians today are victims of racial
discrimination. They were subjected to humiliating treatment in the
coups of 1987 and 2000. The generation of today has a duty and
responsibility to their future generations to redress the wrongs
done to them. Only by doing so and succeeding will they secure the
future of their children. They must be strong-willed to fight
against injustice. In the ultimate, truth and justice shall prevail.
13. What does the NFU hope to achieve from the
Already answered in Question 10.
14. Has NFU approached Government to assist or
be part of this celebration? If yes what has been the response? If
No. This government has shown absolutely no
compassion for the Indian cane farmer. It has refused to provide any
assistance to displaced farmers. It dismantled the assistance
package provided by the Peoples Coalition Government.
The SDL government continues to discriminate
against Indians on grounds of their ethnicity. It refuses to
recognise the plight of the poor, the deprived and the under
privileged amongst the Indian community.
15. How does the NFU plan to involve the
indigenous people in this celebration?
The program will include the involvement of the
indigenous people. It is a fact not generally spoken about but it is
true that the Girmityas saved the indigenous people from the
indignity of slave labour under the Europeans. It was the Indian
presence here that enabled them to maintain their traditional life
in the villages and to preserve their culture. So, the indigenous
people have a reason to be grateful to the Girmityas.
Over the years in the cane belt, the Indian farmer
and his Fijian counterpart have lived together interacting with each
other. NFU sees this as a positive factor to promote a better
understanding of each other's aspirations and needs within the
16. How can many hopeless cane farmers and
labourers -many of whom can be seen squatting on the outskirts of
Suva City - be given hope for future?
It is not only the cane farmers who are squatting
on the outskirts of Suva or other urban centres. Poverty is now
widespread among our people. The two coups and the mayhem that
followed have a lot to do with the high unemployment, escalating
poverty levels, rising prices, high crime rate, corruption and
mismanagement in government today. These have now become chronic
problems for Fiji. Unless and until we are able to completely
eradicate these abuses from our midst, I am afraid life for all
ordinary people will become more and more difficult in the coming
The only hope for our people is to demand
accountability and transparency from the government they elect.
Unfortunately, the SDL government's economic
policies are pushing more and more people into the abyss of poverty
and human degradation. This government has failed to find solutions
to the problems of the ordinary masses.
17. Is Fiji still a wonderful place to live and
There is nothing wrong with Fiji as a country. In
fact it is a beautiful place, endowed with natural beauty, fertile
in soil and has a good climate. The people are generally friendly
and caring. But as in any society and country there are those with
vested interests who want to remain in control of the country even
though rejected by the people. They are the ones responsible for the
two national tragedies of 1987 and 2000. These people must be
apprehended and dealt with according to law so that the rest of the
nation may live in peace and attain prosperity.
18. Why do many Indians stay here, by choice,
or do you believe that most would leave if they had a choice?
The situation here is such that not only Indians
but many indigenous Fijians would also want to leave for greener
pastures as economic migrants if they could. They are fed up of the
status quo here. What do they see their prospects here as except for
We need to restore confidence and trust in the
future of our nation. We must learn to live by the rule of law to
bring order to our society. Only then will things improve and we
will be able to move forward.
19. Mauritius also had Indian indentured
labourers but the country today is in a totally opposite state than
Fiji. Where do you think Fiji or the people here went wrong?
Yes, but the situation there is completely
different. The leaders of Mauritius have been able to translate
their visions into reality. Elected governments there have been
allowed to govern without being decapitated by coups and other forms
of civil disorder. We have a lot to learn from them.
20. What are some of the major issues that will
confront Indians in Fiji over the next 10 years? And are they mostly
These are manifold and include landlessness,
unemployment, racial discrimination, and non-recognition of the role
they have played and continue to play in Fiji's development.
Some of these problems like unemployment, and
poverty apply to people of other races as well. Yes, most of these
are political in nature and originate from bad governance and racial
However, these issues can be effectively addressed and overcome if
we, as a people, can learn to live by universal human values.